Mustard Reviews

You do know about my mustard review site, www.mustardreviews.com, right? Lots of fun and submissions welcome!

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Still Playing

Did you know that Roger McGuinn (of The Byrds fame) records a different folk song every month and posts it to his Folk Den? Or that Daryl Hall (Hall & Oates, of course) posts videos of him jamming with various now famous and used-to-be famous musicians at Live from Daryl’s House?

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Parkour Games

Given that good parkour videos can look like Mario levels, it’s surprising there aren’t more video games that embrace the sport. There’s Mirror’s Edge and just today I discovered Canabalt (the iPhone code is open-source). Cool!

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The Year That Was

My 2008 Year in Review (god, was it that long ago?) was pretty popular and 2010 was another very eventful year for me, so I think it’s time for another round-up. As always, check my Flickr stream for more photos. My Facebook photos, if you have access to it, is also a good resource. Continue reading

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Fruitcake

Some people aren’t fans, but I actually like fruitcake. The last two days I went ahead and gave it a shot, and with some decent results. I used the Fannie Farmer recipe on Epicurious as a starter but decided to heat my fruit and nuts before mixing into the batter on inspiration of this recipe. I combined canned mango slices, jarred cherries, a little bit of their juices, raisins, pitted dates, one finely chopped clementine skin, walnuts, pistachios, and a bit of dark rum for the mixture. As for my batter, I added a little bit of powdered ginger to the combination laid out by the Fanny Farmer recipe. Finally, I took the recommendation from About.com to line my bread pan with aluminum foil in order to prevent the cake’s edges browning too much.

Due to the additional juices from my fruit and nut mixture, my first batter was very liquid. My sister’s little microwave/oven combo isn’t very powerful and I was baking at the 160 C setting, so I had to bake it for maybe three hours. The result:

My first fruitcake

I liked the cake a lot but I wanted to see if I couldn’t get something denser like the fruitcakes I’ve had before. So, I added more flour (maybe 1/2 a cup) and generous splash of rum to the remaining batter and then refrigerated it over night. I got a denser, more evenly cooked cake that only took 2 hours of baking, but it was lighter in color and had less flavor due to the dilution. Still, a nice cake:

Fruitcake Part 2

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Biscuits and Gravy

Biscuits and Gravy

Jenneke has been so good about blogging what she cooks so I figured I should get on that too. Not the most visually attractive thing but the biscuits and gravy I made tonight were darn good. I used a simple biscuit recipe and a sausage gravy recipe to which I added extra flour. Results? Delicious. The recipes made enough for 6 biscuits to be smothered in gravy. That’s a bit less than half of the whole creation you’re seeing in the photo. Check off another entry for the Amsterdam diner menu!

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Sherman Wasn’t Thorough Enough

The Civil War, the most wrenching and bloody episode in American history, may not seem like much of a cause for celebration, especially in the South.

And yet, as the 150th anniversary of the four-year conflict gets under way, some groups in the old Confederacy are planning at least a certain amount of hoopla, chiefly around the glory days of secession, when 11 states declared their sovereignty under a banner of states’ rights and broke from the union.

via Secession Defended on Civil War Anniversary – NYTimes.com.

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“Can Technology End Poverty?”

The problem is that ICT4D [Information & Communications Technology for Development] assumes the very results it seeks to achieve. The human intent and competence ICT4D aims to generate must already be in place for the technology to work. But if developing economies had the capacity, there would be no need for an external technology push: capable people attract, or develop, their own technology.

The Boston Review has a fantastic article on the role that technology can and, more importantly, can’t play in economic and social development. This is something I’ve been thinking about recently as I consider whether the work I do is particularly useful. Sure, I like improving websites for TV stations and helping people build interactive installations, but I think you’d be hard pressed to argue I’m really making the world a better place beyond making a few well-to-do people in rich countries a little bit happier. So how can I? I think I would be morally remiss if I didn’t acknowledge my good fortune in life and seek to help others who do not have the same advantages and successes I do.

On one hand it’s probably fair to say I have more technical skills than money and so those are the best things I can use to benefit others. How can I? There are some cool initiatives of technologically minded people using their skills to help the disadvantaged, like the cool Engineers Without Borders, inspired by the even cooler Doctors Without Borders. It’s a very seductive idea to think that I could, whether from my home in Amsterdam or geographically closer to a group of people I would be seeking to help, hack out some code and make some, maybe even many, people’s lives noticeably better.

However, as the linked article argues, this is rarely, if ever, the case. Given my educational background and general beliefs, I am a very strong believer in the power of systems, particularly political systems. Dysfunctional ones will produce bad results, while improving them will lead to better results. But of course you can’t just wave a magic wand and give everyone pluralistic democratic systems with well-functioning, inclusive economies. The question then, is how can I bend the curve? Give money to organizations? While €100 once a year surely helps someone, eventually, and is especially powerful when done en masse, simple charitable giving strikes me as neither the most personally rewarding nor the best  I can offer of myself. But what web service or what mobile phone app could I make, should I make, to help others ? I wish I knew because I would build them but, again returning to the article, I am very skeptical that there is any such thing I could build ex nihilo that would have any real effect.

Speaking of organizations, there seems to me to be a dearth of ones taking a political systems approach, particularly independent of national governments and their logically self-interested aims. Independent Diplomat is the only organization I can immediately think of. Maybe I should also add Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to the list, but these great organizations strike me as more focused on the symptom than the cause.

The Seattle Project is the closest of any of my work has come to having a larger societal context and thus potential effect, but it is admittedly a plaything right now and deeply biased towards a hyper-technological market-driven context, ie the developed world. I think we’re doing good work but I’m more than ready to admit the project’s limitations and failings.

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Abortion and the Separation of Church and State

A friend watching the West Wing asked me to explain why a priest would discuss being ‘pro-life’ and versus ‘partial birth’ with a politician and what that means in terms of the separation of church and state. I ended up writing a very long response and figured I might as well share it here:

Wow, yeah, abortion is one of the most controversial issues in American politics. You’re on the right track: those generally for it are called ‘pro-choice’ (as in women have the choice of what to do with their bodies) and those against it are ‘pro-life’ (as in believing the a fetus is alive and so terminating a pregnancy is killing a person). ‘Pro-choice’ people tend to generally be politically liberal, and thus Democrats, while ‘pro-life’ people tend to be conservative and thus Republicans.

What is often called ‘partial birth’ abortion, particularly by those who oppose it (notice the importance that language plays in this controversy), is a form of abortion that is performed relatively late into the pregnancy. The Wikipedia page has good information on it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intact_dilation_and_extraction. It’s very rare but controversial because the fetus is large enough to be seen by the naked eye and is taken out through the cervix and vagina similar to how a baby would be born. Because of this the practice is opposed by many Americans, including many who are otherwise ‘pro-choice’. In the last ten years opponents to abortion have pushed for bans of this procedure, often successfully, both because they simply find it abhorrent and because they believe that incrementally restricting the conditions where abortion is allowed will eventually lead to an almost or even complete ban of abortion, something that is currently politically impossible. For these same two reasons ‘pro-choice’ people are against banning this procedure.

As you can imagine, many religions and religious people are opposed to abortion. For some, particularly more right-wing ones, opposition to abortion is the key thing they look for when considering who to support, if anyone. These right-wing Christians (they are almost always Christians, and evangelical Protestants at that) are well-known for campaigning very hard for (Republican) candidates they support but also not coming out to vote if they don’t think any of the candidates (ie the Republican one) is sufficiently opposed to abortion.

This brings us to the question of separation of church and state. A little history: the First Amendment of the Constitution starts by saying “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” So, there can be no official religion nor can people be prevented from practicing their own religion. Most historians say, and I believe them, that many of the Founding Fathers were not very religious at all and, at the same time, wanted to protect religion (any religion) from becoming a tool of the state by being the ‘established’ (i.e. official) religion. Many of the first parts of the United States were colonized by religious dissenters from Britain who did not follow the official Church of England (the Anglican Church, called the Episcopalian Church in the US) and so were forced to flee the country. Because of this history of persecution and because there were already many different religions being practiced, the Founding Fathers wanted to make sure that no official religion could be established. That being said, if I remember my history courses correctly, for until maybe the 1830s or perhaps even later it was assumed as a matter of course that this only applied to Christian religions or, at most, Judeo-Christian religions. This is now not the case and is understand very broadly to include most religious practices, for instance even in recent times allowing (sometimes) certain religions to use hallucinogens (cannabis for rastafarians, peyote for Native American religions, etc) which are otherwise illegal.

Despite this history there have been attempts throughout the history of the US to assert that America is a ‘Christian nation.’ Sometimes campaigners have wished to amend the Constitution, and sometimes they have sought lower hanging fruit. The Constitutional changes have always failed, lacking both common support and being inevitably found illegal. However, less attempts have succeeded. For instance the words ‘under God’ were added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954 (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pledge_of_Allegiance#Addition_of_the_words_.22under_God.22). While it has been challenged in court, none of the challenges have succeeded.

In the last 50 years or so evangelical Protestants, who earlier had avoided politics, have become much more politically engaged and have often pushed for more religious references in public life. Some argue that previous rules prohibiting religious expression in public (and even governmental) places are too restrictive because they end up prohibiting individual religious practices (versus ones endorsed by the government). This has generally been supported in the courts. There have also been attempts to push specific religious views, which have had mixed success and, in mine opinion, is totally unconstitutional.

A similar issue, though somewhat unrelated, is whether religious leaders should advocate specific political policies and promote specific candidates. Traditionally religious leaders and organizations would speak generally (their principles, after all, could directly agree or disagree with the thing in question) but not for specific things. This partially from the traditions I mentioned earlier of keeping free from government influence (and, in some religions the belief that the physical world, and so government, is somewhat wicked and not the concern of their organization).

That being said, it is also because churches are considered charities and so are exempt from taxes. However, religious organizations can and have lost their tax-exempt status if they engaged in direct business activities unrelated to their religion (this has happened to some televangelists). More importantly for what we’ve been talking about, religious organizations, like any tax-exempt charity, can lose their tax exemption if they participate in a political campaign on behalf of a candidate (http://www.irs.gov/charities/charitable/article/0,,id=163395,00.html). As the role of religion has changed in America (not just evangelical Protestants becoming more politically active like I mentioned but also things like Catholic politicians often being more ‘pro-choice’ than Catholic priests) this boundary is being tested more and more.

The debate, as always in things like this, is whether religious groups have gone too far or not far enough. Personally I am generally happy with the status quo. Having attended a Catholic school for most of my primary and second education, I am sympathetic to religion and believe in the freedom of religion. There are other countries I have lived in, such as France, where they seem to believe that the separation of church in state is about freedom from religion. That being said, I am an atheist and believe it is both morally wrong and unconstitutional to push religion in politics and government the way many conservative evangelical Christians do.

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Introducing the Seattle Project

Wow, it’s been a while since I’ve posted here! The last few months have been busy both with work and with family, but I do have something new to share: today the Seattle Project website went live. The project is a partnership between me and my good friend Kai van Hasselt to research externalities, collective action, and incentives. We’ve posted some information about our first project on urban finance instruments and will be updating it with further information including the awesome poster by EHGZ that we showed in Nairobi. Also, Kai will be speaking in The Hague and London in the next few weeks on the topic, so if you’re around come on by.

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